On Sept. 19, 2010, Craig Kimbrel -- then just 22 years old -- hit the first milestone of his big league career as he locked down the first save in the Majors. Kimbrel added another milestone to the long list he’s put together in his career on Wednesday, passing Troy Percival for 11th place on MLB’s all-time saves list with save No. 359 in the Cubs’ 4-1 win over the Pirates.
Few could have known back in ‘10 what Kimbrel -- who turns 33 on Friday -- would go on to accomplish in the Majors, as he continues to move up the all-time saves leaderboard while being a seven-time All-Star, a two-time Reliever of the Year and a four-time National League saves leader.
Well, at least one person had an idea of what Kimbrel could do, according to his current manager, David Ross.
“Look, I saw this guy early on when he was a rookie, and what he was doing, I mean, it's no shock,” Ross said. “This guy, the performance he's been able to have consistently, I think the shocking part is just to be able to do it for this long. I don't know if you ever really have that on your radar, but he's been really good for a really long time.”
Kimbrel’s newest milestone came in the middle of his resurgent 2021 season. Following two disappointing seasons in 2019 and ‘20, in which he posted a combined ERA of 6.00 over 41 relief appearances, Kimbrel has reemerged as the lockdown closer the Cubs expected when they signed him in early June 2019.
Kimbrel has a 0.86 ERA through 21 appearances on the year. He’s converted 11 of 13 save opportunities and he’s recorded 35 strikeouts compared to just eight walks.
When he tied Percival’s mark on Tuesday, he also showed how hyper-focused he’s been on the mound. Kimbrel left a fastball high on the first pitch of the ninth inning, and Cole Tucker ripped it to right for a leadoff double. Kimbrel bounced right back though, inducing a flyout, a strikeout and a groundout to strand Tucker at second and pick up save No. 358.
The same situation played out Wednesday, with Ben Gamel hitting a double to center to lead off the ninth. But once again, Kimbrel retired the next three batters to close out the Cubs’ ninth win in 12 games.
“My job is coming here every day ready to do my job whenever I'm asked to do it,” Kimbrel said Tuesday. “I've been able to do it for a long time now, and it's an honor to get to where I am.”
Kimbrel continues to anchor the Cubs’ dominant bullpen this season.
Chicago’s relievers rank second in the NL with a 2.90 ERA and 239 strikeouts in ‘21. They’ve been even better in recent weeks, as they’ve gone 32 2/3 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run, the best mark in franchise history. And that’s even with bullpen arms Justin Steele and Alec Mills joining the injured list this month.
“Right now, we've got a good mentality down there,” Kimbrel said. “We've got a good game plan, each and every guy. We know how we're going to attack each guy before we even get in the situation. … This past month -- I mean, really, this whole year -- we've been able to go out there and be pretty successful each and every night.”
Kimbrel sits fewer than 20 saves away from Joe Nathan (377) in eighth place on the all-time list, which is a mark he could very well pass this year. But that’s not where Kimbrel’s focus lies. He’ll have time to enjoy those career accomplishments later, but right now, Kimbrel is only focused on closing out games and helping the Cubs continue to win.
“I try not to get too wrapped up in numbers and things as they're going on,” Kimbrel said. “Hopefully one day I can look back at it and really appreciate it, but right now, when we get done with this conversation, it's hit the weight room and get ready for tomorrow.”
• First baseman Anthony Rizzo wasn’t in the starting lineup Thursday for the second game in a row. Ross said Thursday morning that Rizzo was still dealing with the back tightness that kept him out of the game Wednesday night, and with the quick turnaround for a day game it didn’t make sense to force Rizzo back into the lineup.